Gearing Up for Video

I’m going to start my series on video by getting some gear talk out of my system. I love researching, trying, and generally obsessing over new camera gear. I do it more than necessary for someone at my modest skill level, but I've stopped beating myself up over it. It's an element of my enjoyment of the hobby, and I do constrain myself to a budget.

When I decided to focus my attention on video this year, I promised myself that I would take baby steps with gear. No, I don’t need a top-of-the-line Sony A7S II with an assortment of lenses (…yet). No, I don’t need a new MacBook Pro with more horsepower, a better screen, and a touch bar (…yet). While I did have some space credits saved up to apply towards my video efforts, I wanted to push myself to take a measured approach with new gear acquisitions.

Plan A: Fujfilm X-T2

Last year, I switched from the micro four thirds system to the Fujifilm X system for my still photography. While this was a great decision overall, one downside is that until very recently Fujifilm cameras produced fairly abysmal video. This changed with the recent introduction of the Fujifilm X-T2, the successor to the X-T1 model that I now own. But I had been waffling for months on an upgrade to the XT-2 for a couple of reasons.

The first is that it isn’t cheap: just shy of $1,600 for an X-T2 body. The second is that while the video quality is much improved, Fujifilm cameras lack in-body image stabilization. So, shooting quality handheld video would likely require a stabilized lens (which none of my current Fujifilm lenses are) and, ideally, a three-axis gimbal. That would both double the price tag and create too much bulk to carry with me daily.

Against all of my gadget-craving and Fuji-loving impulses, I held off on the X-T2 and started shooting my first videos on my iPhone 7 Plus late last year. (When I say “held-off” on the X-T2, I mean I pre-ordered and cancelled….twice.)

Plan B: iPhone 7 Plus and DJI Osmo Mobile

My early results shooting video in a more "serious" way with the iPhone 7 Plus were quite good. It takes excellent video and sports some handy features like image stabilization and Apple’s new dual lens system. As a result, I was leaning towards keeping my X-T1 for stills, using my iPhone for video, and satisfying my gear cravings by spending a few hundred bucks on the well-reviewed DJI Osmo Mobile smartphone gimbal.

Thanks to a seasonal special from my favorite lens rental company, I was able to rent an Osmo Mobile for the holiday week and then some for about $30. The Osmo Mobile is an impressive piece a technology and a great value for all of the creative options it unlocks. But it didn’t really click for me. While the Osmo Mobile is capable of handling phones as big as the iPhone 7 Plus, I found it a bit unwieldy to use with such a large phone. I’m sure it’s fantastic with the iPhone 7 or iPhone SE. I’m also sure that people use it with bigger phones like the iPhone 7 Plus with great success. I just wasn’t feeling it.

I also found using the DJI mobile app to be an exercise in frustration. I had difficultly connecting via bluetooth consistently, and the slow-panning time lapse feature, which was a major selling point, never worked for me. I did find the face tracking feature very impressive (when the Bluetooth connection worked).

I also began hitting what I’ll call “first world frustrations” with shooting regular handheld video on the iPhone. There wasn’t much it couldn’t do, particularly once I mixed in powerful third-party apps like Filmic Pro. I just missed using a dedicated camera. I prefer holding something that feels like a camera. I like accessing settings through hardware buttons and dials, being able to swap in a fresh battery, pop SD cards in and out, and numerous other aspects of a "real" camera. I think this was partially exacerbated by the size of the iPhone 7 Plus as well. It is my second “plus” size iPhone, and I prefer this size for most of my mobile computing activities. But I find it awkward to use as a camera for extended periods.

There is also the issue that iPhones are the world's best distraction machines. Social media apps and email are always just one irresistible tap away.

I totally could have worked through all of these issues, but it got the wheels in my head turning.

Plan C: Sony RX100 V and Zhiyun Crane-M Gimbal

About six months ago, my father-in-law let me play around with his Sony RX100 II. I was impressed by the images he was getting out of it and intrigued by all of the features that Sony jammed into such a small package. But after about 20 minutes of hands-on time, I came to the conclusion that the RX100 wasn’t for me. It just felt too small in my hands, which are forever spoiled by the wonderful ergonomics of my Fujifilm X-T1.

But the introduction of the latest revision, the RX100 V, in October of 2016, caused me to give this model a fresh look. A bunch of RX100 V reviews and video samples began showing up on YouTube, and I was really impressed by what I saw. It seemed like a perfect balance of ease of use out of the box and advanced features that I could grow into. I also felt like the ergonomic concerns I had wouldn’t be as much of an issue if I was focusing on video versus still photography.

In late December, I decided to go for it. I’ll likely do a more in-depth review on the RX100 V once I’ve had some more time with it, but the short version is that I’m very happy with the decision.

Even though the RX100 V has pretty good built-in stabilization, I still had the gimbal bug following some of the research I did when I was considering he X-T2. So I decided to pick up a Zhiyun Crane-Mthree-axis gimbal for use with the RX 100 V. I will likely write more about this in the future as well. In short, there are both pluses and minuses with it, but overall I really like it.

Sidekick Cameras

One nice side effect I’ve noticed during my month with the RX100 V is that I’ve really grown to appreciate my iPhone 7 Plus as a secondary camera. For example, during holiday gatherings, I put the iPhone on a tripod and shot time lapse footage while using the RX100 V hand held to capture specific people and activities. I also pull my iPhone out regularly and grab a little spontaneous clips of my sons or other spur of the moment subjects. The iPhone 7 Plus is always with me, and it doesn’t feel like much of a quality compromise. And these moments are so brief that none of the minor annoyances I noted earlier bubble up.

I also already owned an Olympus TG Tracker action camera. I purchased it last summer to shoot family fun in the pool and other outdoor activities. There are things I like and don’t like about this camera, but it’s also handy having a rugged shooter to take in the snow or water, or to hand off to one of my young sons without fear of damage.

Time for Action

Between the RX100 V and the gimbal, I’ve spent about $1,500 on gear to support my video efforts. This is just a little less than what I would have spent on a Fujifilm X-T2 (not including any lens or gimbal additions), but I feel like I ended up in the right place. I have a video kit that produces quality output, is very portable, works well in “run and gun” video situations, and lets me grow into more advanced techniques like gimbal shooting, high frame rate slow motion, and color grading S-log2 footage over time.

While I would have been more than fine using the iPhone 7 Plus for the foreseeable future, I gave into my gear acquisition impulses a bit. But I’d like to think I did it in a thoughtful way. Plus, for every piece of gear I pulled the trigger on, there are many more that I’m exercising restraint on. (I’m looking at you, DJI Mavic Pro drone.)

But for now, I’ve settled into learning and experimentation mode, which is fun place to be.

Doug Lane @douglane